A Mindfulness Expert Shares Tips For Navigating Back-To-School Stress And Anxiety
These daily mindfulness exercises can kick common stressors.
Back-to-school season is always exciting and overwhelming at the same time. Especially if you’re a freshman in either high school or college, the fall semester can be emotionally and mentally challenging as you juggle academics and a new social environment. It’s important to take care of your mental health so you can set yourself up for success as you earn your degree and continue to find yourself — and practicing mindfulness is one of the best ways to do so. Here’s how to relieve stress and anxiety when going back to school, according to a mindfulness expert.
According to Headspace mindfulness and meditation teacher Samantha Snowden, it’s helpful to incorporate mindful practices in your day to keep yourself grounded, manage stress, and create healthy habits that change the way you move through life’s challenges.
Starting school up again brings a refresh in your social life as you join new clubs and campus activities and reconnect with friends from past classes on the quad. You may also be anticipating starting a new job or internship, or picking up new hobbies. When there’s a lot on your plate and your daily schedule is booked by the hour, it’s natural for feelings of anxiety to arise. Remember that you’re not alone and, in fact, younger generations are especially vulnerable to experiencing struggles with mental health due to the prevalence of digital culture and the ramifications of lockdown.
“Mental health is an ongoing practice,” Snowden tells Elite Daily. “It's something that we have to do a little bit every day, whether that's a meditation reflection, [practicing] gratitude, or building self-confidence and our self-compassion.”
What Does Mindfulness Mean?
“Mindfulness deals with the way we relate to ourselves, how are we relating to our internal stimuli like our thoughts and our feelings, and how we are relating to the external world, like other people and sounds and sensations,” Snowden says. “A cohesive definition of mindfulness is that it’s our innate capacity to be present with kindness, openness, and curiosity, and a willingness to be with our internal landscape, as it is moment by moment.”
She explains that mindfulness is not about getting rid of intrusive thoughts (although that's an outcome of practice). Instead, it's about shifting relationships so that we're acknowledging and “greeting” what we discover in ourselves with a sense of radical curiosity. Becoming aware of these feelings and thoughts develops through study and practice, whether that's meditation or slowing down.
How To Practice Mindfulness During Your Busy Day
You can apply mindfulness practices to different aspects of life to improve your focus, attention, and emotional regulation of difficult feelings like anxiety, stress, and disappointment, which are especially relevant to students feeling the pressure of life transitions.
Snowden shares that when she was first learning mindfulness as a college student at UCLA, she chose a cue in her life to remind her to refocus during the day. “Every time I had to climb stairs, I would do a ‘STOP’ practice, which is an acronym that stands for: stop what you're doing, take a deep breath, observe how you're feeling or any body sensations, and proceed,” she says. “And then I would walk up the stairs very slowly, and bring my attention to the present moment, meaning sounds, sights, smells, and all my senses. This is a way to encourage the habit of coming back to the moment.”
You can choose a simple cue in your day that makes sense to you, whether that’s every time you turn off a screen, tap your ID card on campus, or spot your favorite color in a room.
How To Deal With Anxiety Through Mindfulness
If you’re feeling overwhelming stress over an upcoming class presentation or exam, or you’re feeling low on self-confidence or burnt out, do your best to remove yourself from the stressful environment and take a moment to slow down. This could look like engaging in a short meditation, listening to calming music, or even doing a short workout or stretch routine to shake off the jitters. If you need help unwinding, you can also try out short “SOS Exercises” on the Headspace mindfulness app that are designed to guide you through strong feelings of anxiety.
“I imagine a busy student in a library preparing for a test, and they can just go to a quiet space, and choose a practice that meets what they need at that moment, whether it's just trying to decompress, or, you feel like they have more clarity,” Snowden says.
Remember to extend kindness to yourself in these tense moments too, by monitoring the way in which you speak to yourself as you work through the feelings you’re going through. Make a habit of encouraging yourself internally, just like you would your best friend.
Why Is Mindfulness Important?
Part of “adulting” is learning how to care for your physical, emotional, and mental health. Mastering mindfulness reduces both in-the-moment and long-term stress and helps to build insight into who we are, what we care most about, and fosters self-trust in decision-making. Snowden explains that it can even improve your physical health due to bolstering your immune system, heart health, and daily choices around food nutrition, and exercise. Movement practices like yoga and stretching, exercises for mindful eating, and focus-optimizing music that you can try out from the privacy of your dorm are all simple ways to support your well-being while you’re at school.
You can pull up a guided exercise in the heat of the moment or commit to consistent mindfulness practice in your daily routine for longer-term results. For example, Headspace found that in just 10 days, mindfulness beginners using its app experienced significant reduction in stress, negative emotions, and burnout, while experiencing an increase in positivity, focus, and improved sleep. Practicing mindfulness over time will also foster self-compassion and, in turn, greater compassion for others.
You should never hesitate to invest your time in self-care, especially during a dramatic life transition of leaving home, navigating new distractions, and facing new challenges that will help you grow into a stronger, brighter version of yourself. It’s the first time you’re really responsible for caring for yourself, so make it a goal this semester to establish mindfulness exercises in between classes or study sessions to set yourself up for a successful and rewarding academic new year.
Samantha Snowden, Mindfulness Meditation Teacher at Headspace